Phrases That Sabotage Communication

Published on April 9, 2019

Word choice can have a big impact on communication outcome. The specific words you use can directly influence the impression you make on others. Whether by email, Zoom, phone or in person, what you say (and how you say it) influences the strength of your message.

Communication is instantly weakened when you include qualifiers and fillers, especially because they undermine credibility, confidence and authority. They can also unintentionally cause the writer or speaker to sound uncertain and insecure.

Consider the following:

Sorry to bother you, but I’m just touching base to follow up on the proposal I sent last week.

I’m wondering if you had a chance to review it yet and possibly have any questions?

Does this sound familiar? Unfortunately, people at every level – from assistants through C-suite executives – adopt an overly passive tone when asking a question or making a request. What starts off as a simple inquiry gets muddled by words and phrases that dilute the message and diminish its impact.

In contrast, consider a more concise and confident version of the same query:

Do you have any questions about the proposal I sent last week?

Certain language culprits are so common in our vernacular that people don’t notice their own usage. Worse, they don't realize how these words and phrases weaken their personal brands.

Since awareness is the first step to changing a behavior, here are 10 phrases that unnecessarily qualify, diminish and sabotage communications. (N.B. This list is far from exhaustive, but they are frequent offenders.) If you recognize any from your own speech and writing, pay careful attention going forward – and stop using them!

1. I’m sorry; Apologies

These are often used to disarm or reduce intensity of dialogue, especially when presenting an opposing point of view. While you should apologize for actual wrongdoings, don’t say you’re sorry simply for communicating; it’s undue and puts you in a belittled position.

2. Sorry to bother you, but…

Avoid diminishing the importance of a request (or follow-up) by qualifying it as an interruption. Doing so sets you up to be ignored or dismissed, whereas stating a request confidently conveys that it matters (and that you do too).

3. Like, like, like…

A vestige of '90s Valley Girl-speak, people of all ages still insert “like” in the wrong places when speaking. This, like, automatically distracts from and dilutes, like, what you’re saying in, like, conversation!

4. I’m just/Just…

“Just” pollutes emails daily, clouding clarity and reducing the impact of statements. Brevity in writing is desirable and most sentences read fine without “just,” - it’s just not necessary.

5. Don’t quote me, but…

This is another way of saying that you don’t want to be held responsible if what you're about to say is wrong or untrue. Instead, get facts straight first, so when offering an opinion/recommendation/observation, you respond confidently.

6. I feel like…

While often innocuous filler (akin to um, ah, well -- which are best omitted too), starting off statements this way makes them less effective and persuasive. This phrase that has become incredibly common in the last few years can also imply that you’re uncertain or hesitant to take ownership of an idea.

7. You know?/Right?

Whether during a conversation or when giving a presentation, periodically asking others if they follow what you’re saying is appropriate. However, habitually tacking on confirmation questions during every day conversation can signal insecurity, detract from messaging and annoy the people with whom you're speaking. Instead, pause to ask if anyone has questions or wants clarification. This shows that you're invested in their understanding, not seeking superficial affirmation.

8. Kind of/Sort of…

If you required surgery, would you want to see the doctor who kind of specializes in your condition or the doctor who specializes in your condition? Whether you’re introducing yourself, talking about your expertise, describing your company or something else, avoid using wishy-washy qualifiers when you want to communicate a definitive message.

9. Hypothetically/Theoretically…

While these words all have a real purpose (and if you’re involved in research and modeling/forecasting, you may use them a lot), too often they stand in for “maybe” in situations that warrant firm answers or commitments.

10. If you will...

"If you will allow me to say/write this," or the familiar condensed version, "If you will," is a way of seeking permission for an unexpected or unclear word/phrase choice. Regularly hedging communication with this is distracting -- and chances are, it's unnecessary in the first place. While occasionally prefacing a statement with this to imply for lack of a better term may be warranted, whenever possible, it's best to strive for clarity from the start.

We’re all guilty at some point of using fillers, qualifiers, hedge phrases or other diminishing language, to varying degrees. While a stray insertion here or there won't derail the effectiveness of your communications entirely, if you know you’re an offender, carefully review emails and think before speaking to sharpen messaging.

Stronger communications drive persuasiveness and impact, which are positive reflections of your personal brand.

Editor's Note: This post was originally published on April 9th, 2019 and updated on August 28, 2023.

Related Resources:

5 Introduction Mistakes That Cost You Opportunities (& What To Do Instead)
Presentation Delivery: The Secret To Closing More Business
Email Etiquette Do's And Don'ts

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